DENVER — In the midst of navigating high school, participating in sports and applying to college, two young women are also making a notable impact in the Denver community.
Before the Broncos' Inspire Change Summit on Tuesday, which celebrated the work of the team's Inspire Change partners, safety Justin Simmons surprised Broncos Boys & Girls Club members Nashara Ellerbee and Naja'Ray West with a special announcement: For their commitment to fostering social justice, they have been selected as the Broncos' nominees for the NFL's inaugural Inspire Change Changemaker Award.
"This [award] is to continue putting the spotlight on individuals and organizations who are out in the community and are creating positive change in our communities," Simmons said. "Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to see firsthand the work that Nashara and 'Ray Ray' do in their own communities. ... You have two young, talented world-changers, and to see them bring the community together for two years straight now has just been absolutely inspiring."
Simmons first met Ellerbee and West in the fall of 2020 at a multi-week youth leadership series hosted by the Broncos and RISE, a national nonprofit working to combat racial discrimination in the sports community. The two teenagers were active participants in the critical conversations about diversity and inclusion, and the series inspired them to create change in their own neighborhood.
The two young women collaborated to develop an idea that would eventually become the March for Peace — an annual event to support Denver's Montbello community featuring a 5K race and a walk, a memorial garden remembering loved ones lost to violence, free meals and a community celebration. They have held two Marches for Peace so far, with the third event set to take place on May 20, 2023, and Ellerbee, West and the Club received the 2022 Boys & Girls Clubs of America's national award for community service in recognition of their work.
For the NFL Inspire Change Changemaker Award, each NFL team has nominated an individual — or, for the Broncos, a duo — who is committed to making a difference in their community. When it came time for the Broncos to select their nominee, it was an easy choice to make: Despite only being in high school, Ellerbee and West have already done exceptional work to combat violence and promote social justice.
As the Broncos' nominees, Ellerbee and West received a $10,000 donation from the NFL Foundation in their names that will be split between the Broncos Boys & Girls Club and RISE. Additionally, they will be honored on the field during Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals.
On Saturday, dozens of Broncos players, coaches and staff members marched with the Montbello community in Denver on Saturday to show their support at the second annual March for Peace, which was organized by two Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club members.
"We're both speechless," Ellerbee said after learning that she and West are the Broncos' nominees. "... To be shown a video and [hear Simmons'] appreciation for us was like, 'Oh my gosh, our hard work is actually being shown.'"
West added: "For me, I was mind-blown. I couldn't even speak; there were tears in my eyes. I didn't know what to say, because a lot of times there are other people being recognized, and we recognize other people. For the Broncos and Justin to take time out of their day to recognize us, it was mind-blowing."
Over the past two years, Simmons has become an older-brother figure to Ellerbee and West. Not only does the two-time All-Pro safety support the work they do in the community, but he also spends quality time with them whenever he can.
"He means everything to me," West said. "He'll tell you, every time we see each other, there's no down moments. We're smiling from [ear to ear], we're talking, we catch up, we pick up where we leave our last conversations."
Ellerbee noted that when they first had the opportunity to meet Simmons in the youth leadership series, they assumed it would be a one-time thing. But two years of mentorship and friendship later, Simmons has become a permanent fixture in their lives.
"He's very supportive," Ellerbee said. "He comes to our [basketball] games and he's always sticking around. ... He's very committed, so it just shows us how much love he has for us and the community."
For Simmons, the admiration goes both ways.
"I am in such awe of the work that these two do, and they inspire me each and every day," Simmons said.
As Ellerbee and West prepare to host their third annual March for Peace in the spring, they are grateful for the impact they have been able to make in the Denver community.
"It's just so important because every year, you get new people at the march," West said. "And you get the old ones too. You see people coming back year after year, and they're excited about the march. ... It's just so impactful and inspiring that we have inspired other people, and other people are coming back to us waiting for the next one, wanting to see where we're going next."
On Tuesday, Broncos executives, current players and Broncos alumni put the spotlight on the team's Inspire Change partners to celebrate their impact in the community.